Navigating the Justice System, Part Three: As a Young Adult

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on June 12, 2014.

< Part Two

When I was about 17, I moved out.

Once it was truly clear to me that what happened in my home was abusive and not normal I decided to try to end the abuse for everyone. I started making regular calls to Children’s Aid on my father. I had to get help making these calls because Children’s Aid did not take my calls seriously because I was perceived as a disgruntled daughter (I was a disgruntled daughter, I suppose – but it didn’t negate what I had to say). There had already been multiple closed investigations on my family, and my parents presented as godly people who were just doing the best they could do with very little money and terribly rebellious children (although the social workers were always impressed with our obedience). I had help from guidance counsellors at my high school, and from the family I was staying with.

This process exacted a steep personal cost.

I had to relive what had happened constantly, and I worried that if this bid for freedom for all my younger siblings failed, and my parents found out, I would be cut off from them forever. My father had always threatened to pack everyone up and move to Mexico in the middle of the night, and I was afraid that if CAS called and invited themselves over for a pre-announced visit, my father would follow through on this threat and be forever protected by his friend-of-a-friend counterparts in Mexico. This situation caused a lot of pain for me. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts, and began engaging frequently in fairly serious self-harm, although I had done some self-harm even as a pre-teen before I knew that it was a thing. I have self-injury scars on my arms that will never go away.

My self-injury served as a tangible demonstration to those who were supporting me by calling CAS, that there was a real problem that needed to be fixed. I believe that some of the thinking was that maybe if they could get an intervention in the family home, they would be able to save my younger siblings from going through the same thing. It was kind of too late to save them from the pain, but at least they could end it.

CAS became convinced to take a closer look.

Once another investigation was finally launched, things moved quickly. There were a few meetings, and my dad was given the option of promising to not yell at my mother or physically punish the children (this may sound familiar). They found out that he chased teenagers with garden implements, and beat kids with dowel rods and broomsticks. They only wanted that to stop. He declined this option, so he ended up being removed from the property by CAS and police. He was taken to jail and charged with child abuse for his use of unreasonable corporal punishment. He was not allowed back on the family property because my mom was there with the kids (I had also moved home) and he wasn’t allowed to displace the family. We went to criminal court when I was 19. I had just started dating my now-husband, and going out for some lunch while at court was our first date. I testified, along with several of my siblings.

We were given victim support this time.

We testified much more clearly than we did when we were kids. We went for a few days. The judge was kind to us, and cleared the court room of anyone that we didn’t want to have there. They asked us questions kindly, and didn’t push us when it was hard. We only testified against my father, not against my mother. We decided as a group of teenagers that the priority was to get my father to answer for what he did, because what he did was much more serious than what my mom did, and my mom had not been physically abusive to my siblings in the time between my father’s arrest, and court. The result of those court proceedings is that my father took part in a plea deal, where he pled guilty to three counts in exchange for the other six (there are nine siblings) charges being dropped.

He was given a year of probation. He also had to continue going to court with my mom (family court, I believe) to work out issues of custody, but for him to get a say, he was supposed to file his own papers. He never did. He repeatedly attended court with no representation, or asked for adjournments to have more time to file papers. Eventually this ended and my mom pretty much ended up with custody and residency in the home, because of his inaction. My grandfather bought my father a car and a cell phone, and he has spent the past 7 years floating around between staying on his other property in Nova Scotia, and living with his like-minded friends in Ontario who allow him to live in their houses with their children, or to set up a shed or camper in their back yards.

He still has no concept that he did anything wrong at all.

End of series.

Navigating the Justice System, Part Two: When My Parents Went to Court

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on February 2, 2014.

< Part One

This part of Navigating the Justice System deals with a time in my life when my parents went to court and I didn’t, but I am including it in the middle of a three part series since it hinges them together. Here is what happened when my parents went to court:

When I was about 11, we were living in Ontario, where we had moved to get away from the court proceedings in Nova Scotia. However, my parents had been ordered to appear back in court in Nova Scotia. We had been going a conservative church in Ontario, for about a few months to a year. My parents talked to some of their friends in the church, and the decision was made to “farm out” the kids to various families while my parents were away, for about 10 days. I was pretty excited about this, because I was always helping to look after my siblings, and I thought it could be a fun break for me. My parents sent my two close-in-age brothers to stay with a family on a farm, which they didn’t mind too much. They sent my next younger sister to stay with a family with a number of young children, with a daughter that was close to her age.

They didn’t consider that that daughter bullied my sister.

They sent me to an older couple with grown up children, along with the youngest two sisters. They took my youngest brother at the time with them. The two younger girls were very young, so they were not potty-trained and showed some signs of what I now know to be disrupted emotional development. (I would like to note here that these girls have grown up into wonderful young ladies). So the couple agreed to take them for the ten days only if I went there too, so I could change their diapers, and look after them. I suppose this wasn’t that much different from home life, but the lack of supervision at home meant I could make some of my own decisions and revel in some 11 year old laziness. While I was there, I had to do quite a bit of work. I washed their eggs for their egg business, got up before the girls so that I could change them and dress them before they disturbed the family, and usually got the girls their breakfast and did the dishes. I did laundry and other chores also, but I was always responsible for the girls too.

I was expected to keep the girls in the same room all the time and watch them. I don’t know what month it was, but it was some time in the summer, since we went outside at certain times too. The girls weren’t used to that kind of structure, since while my parents were extraordinarily controlling, they also had a notable lack of control in daily life, with no structure, no schedule, and the only rule really was to not upset the parents, and do everything they specifically demanded immediately. I think that this couple disapproved of my siblings’ behavior and my parents’ parenting style and methods, and decided that they could fix it. But it doesn’t work to take an 11 year old or even toddlers and suddenly change everything about how they do life in ten days. They talked to me about how I should behave and what I should be doing in daily life, and to respect my parents, but they also spoke negatively about my parents.

It was very confusing for me as an 11 year old. I knew that my parents were going back to court but I didn’t really understand it.

I kind of hoped that they would go to jail while they were there, but then I was afraid I would be stuck with this couple, raising my two siblings forever.

I had also been extensively isolated so I did not know how to function well around other people all the time, and they made fun of that. I was very awkward. I suppose I also showed signed of disrupted emotional development. My mom and the lady decided that I should keep a diary while I was there, but the lady read what I wrote every day, and then my mom read it when they returned. I felt like I had no privacy, so I only recorded what we ate, and when we went out for groceries.

I do not blame this couple, but it was after I returned home that I started to really experience depression. I didn’t want to go to church anymore, and I didn’t want to have friends. I still was forced to go to church, not that I tried to argue, it wasn’t optional. Being with this family really taught me what other people in the church thought of us, and I knew there was a good chance that everyone talked about us like that.

It also caused a great deal of conflict for me. On one hand, I was angry that they tried to impose so much structure, but on the other hand I realized that if I complied with the structure, it would be peaceful, and that was not how it was at home. Because there were no predictable rules at home, it could never be peaceful. I think as a child I wanted to have the best of both worlds: the comparative freedom of having no supervision at home, the power of being in charge when my parents were gone all the time, but also the peace in the presence of authority figures. The couple we stayed with never hit me or yelled at me or my siblings, just expressed “disappointment” if I didn’t live up to their expectations.

Being around this family 24/7 also really emphasized to me that I was socially awkward, and I felt like my actions and words were on display for constant scrutiny. It wasn’t even that I felt I couldn’t do anything right, but I didn’t even know what the right thing was. I think it was obvious to them that something was wrong in our family, and I wish that the couple had used that knowledge to get us some help, instead of becoming part of the oppression. Every week when we saw them at church after that, I felt exposed, like they knew something bad about me. They were disappointed because they thought I would have some sort of connection with them after I went home, but I didn’t. This experience really reinforced for me that adults had all the power and that no one would help me, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. That I was the problem.

My parents were finished with court and didn’t go back to court. I don’t really know what the resolution to that was. I just know that it was a terrifying time for me, and I don’t think it was right that I was put through the knowledge that they were going to court, and that it had to do with parenting, but I wasn’t made privy to the resolution. It also makes me very suspicious about the outcome. I also think it wasn’t right for the church to have that window into our family problems and not do anything about it. I know it should be surprising, as it is very difficult to risk being the whistleblower when surrounded by others who do not seem to recognize the problem.

But if any one of those three families who got glimpses into the mental health status of my siblings and I had chosen to do something, it could have saved us from the six years of suffering that was to come.

Part Three >

Navigating the Justice System, Part One: Alone at 9 Years Old

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on January 18, 2014.

Trigger warning: discussion of child maltreatment and its consequences.

If this is the first Feminist in Spite of Them post you have read, please consider reading this either before or after.

When I was about 9, my parents were investigated by Children’s Aid. Social workers came out to talk to us. They met with us and found out that my parents spanked as punishment — which made sense since my parents had posted “The 21 Rules of This House” next to the dining room table. They came back a few times and spoke to each of us children. My parents homeschooled and they questioned whether we were getting an adequate education and whether abuse would be identified easily enough without regular contact with other people. One day they came with police cars and two police men and took most of us to the police station and interviewed us on video. My parents left the youngest with friends and came to the police station too but we didn’t see them all day.

I don’t know what my siblings said in their interviews, but I had always been taught to be very honest so I answered all their questions honestly, which was hard because I had also been carefully taught to not divulge family business to strangers. The information I gave outlined clearly that we were spanked, when we disobeyed or showed a bad attitude, with an object that was somewhat anthropomorphised in our home: “the rod”. My parents also practiced time-outs like shutting children outside in the evening for several hours for not eating all their dinner. I trusted that my parents were acting appropriately, since that is what they told me when they did it, so I presented it as fair and reasonable, and did not see a reason to hide anything. They told me what abuse was and asked if I was abused. I responded that technically we were because of the punishment methods but it was not abuse because it was Biblical. We were sent home with our parents. They asked my parents to promise to not spank and they were very resistant.

A while later, we went to court. I went to court three separate times. As far as I can remember, I went to family court one day, and then later on I testified two days at a higher or different level of court across the hall.

I don’t really understand the reasoning that led to this situation, but I was interrogated in court by the prosecutor in family court as a reluctant witness to my own parents’ abuse.  I testified that I loved my parents and I wanted to be spanked when I disobeyed. I wasn’t quite sure about that but that was what my parents and their lawyer and all their friends told me to say. Please note that I was sent home with my parents after court and although I spent a few days away from my parents they were able to choose were I went, and they chose a family friend who reinforced my parents’ beliefs. At least two of my brothers may have also testified in that court. I believe that my parents and their lawyer offered us up to testify, but I am not sure. Part of the reason I believe that I was there by the choice of my parents is because we did not receive any kind of victim witness counselling or preparation, and I don’t think that my parents could have declined on my behalf if I was there as a victim of their actions. They should have not been allowed to decline in any case.

I may as well have been alone the whole time. My parents were absorbed in their case, their lawyer treated me as a pawn, and anyone else involved were concerned that my parents might be punished for their actions. I am unclear on the outcome of that case, but my mother tells me that the judge threw that case out but that children’s services tried again from a different angle and that was why there was another prosecutor and case across the hall.

In that court, I was more reluctant to answer questions, things had changed for the worse at home since the first court and I was far more unhappy. We weren’t being schooled anymore, there was another new baby on the way, and there was more yelling and beating instead of rational spankings. I was not happy at home anymore. My father was sitting only a few feet in front of where I sat in the stand, and frowned every time I spoke. I had gotten in trouble for some things I had said in the first court, and my parents were so incensed by what two of my brothers said in the first court that they somehow made sure they did not testify again. My answers were inconsistent so the judge decided to bring out the taped interview taken at the police station that I mentioned earlier.

I was very afraid of what would happen if my father saw that video I had made at the police station outlining his punishment methods, and I knew I had to go home with him.

I protested persistently, begging the judge to not play the video, but I couldn’t tell him why, with my dad sitting a few feet away. I was removed from the courtroom by the bailiff. He was this hugely intimidating man and I was really afraid of him, but he was actually really nice and expressed his outrage about the whole thing, even though I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. He took me to a small room with my mom and a friend of hers.

The judge showed the video to the courtroom, and the bailiff brought me back when it was done. The judge asked me what my story was, if I wanted to stick to my very inconsistent story of a loving family, or if I stood by the police interview that outlined what legally qualified as abuse, depending on interpretation. I didn’t know what to do and I was very traumatized by the experience, to the point that I cannot remember how it ended and I got out of there. I am not sure if the judge decided to discount my testimony or if he took the whole scene as evidence of abuse.

The truth is, I was abused. I was told what to think and how to think it. I was a somewhat compliant child, but I witnessed my other siblings rebel with terrible consequences. I was afraid of what was going to happen all the time, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe sometimes.

Being put into a situation where I had to defend the actions of my own parents created a claustrophobic conflict for me.

Even before court, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t treated well. I had to give up my own wishes all the time even when it wasn’t reasonable, I had to help take care of younger children, I had to bargain for my own education as a child under ten. Periodically my parents’ beliefs completely changed and most of my possessions would be disposed of because they didn’t comply with the new beliefs.  I walked around with suicide notes in my pocket. We had to ride around in a big van with no windows and couldn’t see out, so I always thought we were going to die, and I was ok with that at 9 years old. Life was too hard and too long, and there was nothing good.

After court was over and my parents packed us out and secretly moved us to another province, everything got much worse. By moving away from the child protection case they moved away from all consequences and started over again in a more conservative church and a more isolated property. I blamed myself for not somehow making sure we got sent to foster care during the court episode, and I spent my pre-adolescent years as a self-harming desperate little adult in a child’s body.

For more reading on my parents’ beliefs, please click here.

There is an outrageous lack of support for children who are put in the position of navigating the justice system, and there is not a great deal of information on the consequences for the children. If you would like to add to the conversation in any way I welcome your comments.

Part Two >